Both the Cowboys and the Raiders came into Saturday night’s match in Townsville in a fairly precarious position and with a considerable amount of self-doubt. While Canberra might have started to turn their season around with wins over the Eels and the Bulldogs, they were yet to win against a stronger team – a fact that their 42-18 loss to the Bunnies the week before clarified in a particularly painful way. At the same time, the Cowboys haven’t quite managed to make Johnathan Thurston work like he has in recent years, and have probably declined from their barnstorming buildup to the 2017 grand final despite the return of their most iconic footy player.
For the first part of the game, that prompted some pretty strong defence from both sides, but a string of errors from Canberra saw the Cowboys gradually get the opening edge, culminating with a pair of penalties that gifted them their most sustained possession of the night so far – first, Iosia Soliola coughing up the Steeden halfway into a promising set, and then an error seven metres out from their line almost immediately after, gifting the Cows with the scrum and a fresh opportunity.
They made the most of it, too, with a deft scrum play that saw them clocking up a differential penalty. At first, they made as if to take the two, only to be reminded that it wasn’t an option for this particular type of error, although that rule ended up working in their favour, as a long ball from Michael Morgan to Thurston, and then a short ball from Thurston to Gavin Cooper opened up just enough room in the Raiders’ defence for the big second-rower to plunge through for the first four points.
While Cooper’s effort was spectacular, the fact of J.T. being the try assister made this a particular rousing try for the home team, especially given the way it echoed an earlier short ball from Thurston back to his five-eighth that for a moment had looked as if it might result in points as well. Seeing J.T. add the extras was the icing on the cake, and yet the Raiders responded with an awareness of how important this opening try had been for the Cows, with Joey Leilua and Nick Cotric building a terrific platform with a pair of runs up through the ruck for a repeat set, allowing Jordan Rapana to put in an even speedier and more elusive run during the subsequent set.
This sequence may not have resulted in points but it did play a critical role in regenerating Canberra’s momentum. About ten minutes later, their renewed energy paid dividends when Josh Papalii put in an enormous one-man effort and riposte to Cooper, collecting the Steeden right on the line and simply running over Jason Taumalolo before reaching out a hand right beneath the posts to rack up the first points of the night for the Raiders, with Jarrod Croker’s kick bring the score to 6-6.
For a moment, it looked as if Canberra were going to make it a double before the break, only for Nick Cotric to be dragged into touch just before scoring in the corner. Yet the Cowboys had their own choke just after they returned from the sheds, paving the way for a second half that would be full of near-misses for both teams, but especially for North Queensland, who came closer than most other matches this year to congealing around Thurston, but for that very reason felt further away too.
This particular sequence started with a classic Thurston combination – a kick to the corner where Kyle Feldt leaped up to pop it back to Ben Hampton, who collected the footy in turn, tried to channel Feldt to score in the wing, and then offloaded to Morgan on the ground when the Raiders defence proved too good for him. It should have been the try that put the Cowboys back in the game, but with Hampton’s pass called forward – marginally forward – the momentum swung in the other direction.
It didn’t swing immediately, admittedly, with Thurston getting the Cows another set with an equally good kick to the corner shorty after, and then slotting through a penalty goal following an error from the Raiders early in the tackle count. Still, these would be the last points that North Queensland scored over the course of the night even if their subsequent game was still punctuated by moments of brilliance, most immediately a daringly late offload from Antonio Winterstein to Jake Granville that provided the Cows with a good platform to get to the other end of the park again.
The pass felt all the more meaningful in that Winterstein had arguably put in the most dexterous move of the night so far for North Queensland, as well as the move that most encapsulated North Queensland’s tension between clumsiness and brilliance over the course of the game. Midway through the first half, the big winger had appeared to fumble a dropout over the side of the field, only to bobble it back and then catch it right on the ground, bouncing over backwards and providing the team with an example of the ability to self-correct under pressure that they needed.
It felt just as significant, then, when the sequence that had started with Winterstein’s offload ended with Cotric collecting Thurston’s fifth-tackle kick on the full, determined to make sure that Feldt and Hampton didn’t get another shot at the corner. From there, the Raiders consolidated, thanks in part to Luke Bateman’s first carry of the night, and Aidan Sezer sliced through Coen Hess, Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote shortly after for his first try of the year and first in thirteen matches.
It was a show of individual brilliance to match Papalii’s, and yet the Raiders were unable to consolidate over the next few sets, thanks to a sustained period of possession for the Cowboys. Even there, though, North Queensland couldn’t quite make good on their field position, with Te Maire Martin’s near-try followed quickly by Thurston booting the ball too far, and Paulo’s handling error early in the next Raiders set only resulting in Jason Taumalolo then losing the ball right on the try line.
To be fair, Taumalolo’s cough-up looked more like a strip in retrospect, but the broader North Queensland pattern was clear, with Jack Wighton summarising things pretty neatly when he cleaned up Morgan right on the line following the kind of break that should have turned the resident five-eighth tryscorer or tryassister. Watching it in slow motion, I couldn’t think of a game where loss of confidence played such a critical role at the eleventh hour, as you see the very moment at which Morgan – usually so calm under pressure – hesitated as to whether to dummy, pass or run, leaving himself open for the Canberra fullback to monster him to the ground.
That frustrated try was the last straw for the Cows, who never really looked dangerous over the dying minutes of the game, especially once Siliva Havilii had carried virtually the entire North Queensland defence with him over the chalk for the last points of the night. The Cowboys have a long week to wait, then, before they try to make amends against a Penrith outfit anxious to regroup around Dylan Edwards’ absence, while the Raiders will be looking to make this a winning streak against the Titans when they welcome them to GIO for a wintry game in Canberra next round.